London Is Not What It Was (And That’s A Good Thing)
‘If you ‘go out’ – and who doesn’t these days? – you’ll need this.’
So begins one popular 1940s travel guide. The concept of ‘going out’ seems relatively recent in the UK, which explains a hell of a lot.
In 1952 a gentleman named John Metcalf decided to produce a book about London with a difference. He felt it should be a guidebook with practical use, as helpful as the legendary ‘A-Z’, not a dry lexicon but something to be popped into the pocket whenever one visited the capital. It sold for five bob (half a crown paperback) and set out to be;
‘The guidebook for accuracy, brevity, convenience, detail, easy-reading, facts, gourmets, humour, information, junketing, knowledge, liveliness, method, nightlife, originality, parties, quick reference, reliability, sightseeing, time saving, usefulness, visitors, Xmas, yourself & zest.’ Could he not think of a W?
It is wonderfully of its time. The section on Shopping is subdivided with ‘Women’s Shopping’, where you can get ‘everything from a pin to a peignoir‘, and includes ‘Stocking Repair’. The men’s shopping priority list is telling, starting with Cigars, Pipes, Waistcoats, Hats, Clothes For Hire and Shooting Sticks.
About bowler hats it suggests that you ‘allow the assistant to give you what he thinks you ought to have. It’s the best way.’ There is something weirdly sexy about a bowler hat, and very occasionally one does see a city gent (or woman) wearing one in the Square Mile.
As the book was being written, the section on Debutantes was fast becoming redundant as that inbred cattle market, flogging off the undesirable girls to chinless inheritors, was disappearing with the grand mansions. A Deb, Metcalf said, ‘can usually be recognised at the Berkeley or Quag’s or the Four Hundred by the loudness of her voice and the pinkness of her escort’.
For some bizarre reason the debutant season – one born of necessity in trying to keep those damp country piles going and prevent inbreeding – spread to America, where it took on a different meaning.
The ‘Coming out’ season speaks of a world gone by. In 1951 Moyses Stevens was running a 24-hour flower delivery service, and greyhound racing was still a popular night out all across the city. Mews houses were fashionable and cheap (they were where hawks and falcons were caged, or mewed). Theatre clubs like the Watergate and the New Lindsey operated as what we now call ‘fringe’ and Turkish baths were plentiful, ‘the better to exude last night’s intake of champagne’.
We remember Sundays in London as being awful, dead days – but were they really? The Sunday lunchtime drink was a ritual. It was the time for street markets like Petticoat Lane and Club Row, the orators of Hyde Park Corner, magnificent choral singing in churches, the parks, cinemas and concerts, not so much dull as lazy.
Restaurants had little global cuisine, which was impossibly exotic, but French, Italian, Greek and Spanish were well represented in Soho, and there were quite a few Chinese restaurants, including Ley-Ons (still going). Restaurants were also divided into Dancing and Non-Dancing, with different price lists. Circuses formed a large part of the Christmas family entertainment scene, with Bertram Mills and Tom Arnold’s operating to capacity. I remember going to the former at Olympia as a child.
Zoos were rather different, too. The parrots were all outside on stands where you could feed them, as were camels, zebras and other beasts available for rides, and the chimpanzees’ tea parties were always a highlight. I’m not entirely convinced that the tea parties were cruel; certainly the primates gave every indication of loving them, and with their emphasis on open air and interaction they certainly gave the appearance of being a better idea than locking them in cages alone. Perhaps that only worked in the awfully-well-behaved postwar years.
The London Zoo now is a depressing place, torn between conservation and cruelty. The last time I went the big event was an eco-exhibition of products like handbags made from endangered species, over which they’d been forced to stick a label reading ‘Not For Sale’.
In 1951 shops were subject to early and late closing times, restaurants struggled with little available meat, butter, eggs or cream but ‘the best fish and game in the world’. ‘Don’t be bullied by your wine waiter’ warns the guide. Londoners from this era were a pretty lean-bodied lot, and longevity jumped.
London’s annual events calendar reveals a panoply of activities, including dogs shows, design fairs, royal events, military tattoos, trade shows, regattas, horse shows, art exhibitions, ceremonial parades, balls, poetry readings, jazz, pantomimes, book markets and an entire separate calendar of sporting fixtures.
Finally I note Metcalf’s comment on London police, who ‘have earned the right to be called ‘wonderful’ by their deliberateness of gait, a slow helpfulness of manner and a near-divine sense of dignity’.
A lost time, then, although many vestiges remain.Was it better or worse than today? Neither probably, just different. It was certainly more sure-footed and rooted in tradition, but also dull, slow and conservative, frightened of difference and mainly of benefit to those further up in the class system.